Britain Loves Africa: Portraits of Culture and Intimacy

By Bryony Bodimead

Bryony Campbell’s photos of inter-racial couples simplifies the dynamics of ‘mixed love’ in East Africa, reducing the entanglement of cross cultural harmonies to black and white.

The photographic project Britain Loves Africa by Campbell attempts to give viewers a domestic insight into the homes of couples living in East Africa of whom one partner is British and the other African. With these images she raises a subject that would normally be informally explored, in conversation or gossip, and given it a platform for public debate. A rigorous discussion recently took place after the photographer presented her work to an audience at Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Art, Makerere University. The concerns in the discussion were focussed largely on the context of the title. How does the reading of the images match up to the ambitious intentions of the photographer?

She intended the work to be read as politically significant in the context of international relations and to contribute towards a positive counter-image of Africa. Campbell’s photos have a strong sense of putting words into the mouths of her subjects, which seems to block the other interesting things that could be said. This then leads to the question of what might be interesting about a series of photos of inter-racial couples in East Africa?

On one level, the topic offers an opening to consider culture and ethnicity as factors within a site of intimacy. It raises the question of love and romance as cultural perspectives, inviting the viewer to think about what the difference might be between a Ugandan and British concept of romance and sexuality. Within this realm there is also potential difference of expectation of gender roles in an intimate relationship. Everyday images of a couple’s interaction might offer an insight into the rigidity or fluidity of cultural formations of femininity and masculinity, and explore the need for flexibility and negotiation.  Campbells photos fail to capture such nuances.

Campbell was asked during the discussion, “What about those living in Britain – could the project work there?” The specificity of the East African context is essential to the reading of her photos. Firstly there are far fewer mixed-race couples here than in Britain, and curiosity tends to follow rarity. In this way, the couples might be better compared to relationships between Britons and first-generation immigrants to Britain post 1950. In that era the expectations, myths and stigmas, which flourish around ‘abnormality’, are completely different. Thus corresponding to changing concepts and implications of race in societal structures, as well as the difference in economic agency.

The couples photographed are asked to demonstrate how life appears to change, or stay the same, when somebody is with a white person. Campbell outlines an intention to explore whether a relationship leads to assimilation yet the domestic focus means that beyond seeing their living conditions the photos are limited to showing differences in partying philosophies.

In the end, Campbell asks too much from the photos. From the title one anticipates a range of instances of romance being displayed, with a self-conscious view of the exoticism and the reference to history incited by the obtusely punned title Britain Loves Africa.  Yet Campbell’s images remain obstinately silent on the matter, as though her intention to overcome an exoticised or the racially juxtaposed view of Africa can be achieved through a refusal to confront it in her photos. It seems, that this was an opportunity for exoticism to be explored outside of politically-correct theoretical spheres, instead in relation to personal stories of love and attraction. Here the exotic component of new relationships as being unfamiliar, exciting and fascinating does not sit as a central part of all new unions, rather only a component of interracial and crosscultural love.

How do the images deal with the way the title places them in context of historical relations?  They create the uneasy suggestion that history inflects the way societies now think and then charges the post-colonial relationships. During the discussion the people who were particularly vocal in their concerns were mostly Brittish; the uncomfortable nuances of the presumption of history as ever present was being related to our own position here and, because of the ‘British onto African’ collective-narrative of the piece. Again, the important issue raised by the project fails to be met. The forced sense of normality through the images is simply shrugged  off as if irrelevant, leaving the viewer feeling as though a conversation has begun through which they are exposed, and then abruptly ended with statements unexplained and questions unanswered.